Task for the day? Pick up students’ nicely dried sculptures from the studios at Phoenix Brighton and get them to the pottery. Ah – need to empty the car out first. The boot is still full of armatures and clay from teaching. As still waiting to move into new studios I pile the armatures on my living room floor. They join the books, the plinths, the sculptures, the photography gear. The clay can stay in the boot as I need some ballast. Down to the studios. The loading bay is free. The sculptures have been drying out for several months in a cupboard at the other end of the studios. They are nice and dry and a bit lighter than they were, but still heavy. With some help, we get them in a supermarket trolley. We get some odd looks but this gets them to the top of the stairs near the loading bay. I carry them one by one to the car and place the three of them in a row in the boot. They are still on their armatures, so I place the ballast (bags of clay) on top of the base-boards, front and back. I then wedge them in so they can’t tip or slide in any direction. Finally, the test. This is basically me pushing the back of the car up and down to see if anything moves. Perfect.
Now to drive over to the South Heighton Pottery. What a glorious day. The drive is lovely. There is so much sky and the colours of the downs are evocative of the coming of spring. Once I get to the Pottery, the snowdrops and crocuses in its gorgeous grounds reaffirm that it’s spring. The potter, Chris Lewis, helps get the sculptures out of the boot. He is a fabulous sculptor and potter and incredibly knowledgeable about all things clay-related. He has been here since 1976. My first sculpture tutor, Sylvia Macrae Brown, introduced us to Chris and I have been firing sculptures here ever since. Chris understands the way that sculptors work, and takes a great deal of care to fire the work safely. Trying to fire the clay too quickly, could lead to disaster. Firing the clay before it is fully dried out, could lead to disaster. For this reason, I leave it to the expert. It takes around a day to get the kiln up to temperature, a day to fire, and a day for it cool down. There are no shortcuts.
I regularly pick his brains – or the brains of his co-potter, Chris Ford. Today I ask about whether, when hollowing-out a sculpture, you should prick the inside all over with a cocktail stick. I don’t, but there are a couple of sculptors I know that do. We also discuss how thin to hollow-out a sculpture – interestingly he said that 2-3 inches thick should be fine as long as it is well and truly dried out before the firing. We also chatted about what type of clay to use. I use clay with grog or sand in it, because I like the texture. What I hadn’t appreciated was that it’s a good idea to use clay with grog or sand in it, so that the clay doesn’t shrink too rapidly. Such rapid shrinking can lead to cracking when firing.
So – the sculptures can be picked up by end of next week. Then need to get them back to their rightful owners.
Finally, the last day. It’s like we have been in a parallel universe. The end of the fifth day comes as a bit of a shock to all. What, we won’t be back in this room with Dave again tomorrow? Hard to imagine. The students have given their all – they have looked, looked and looked again. Most of my time has been spent prompting them to look more closely – from near, from far, from below, from above, from all sides. Even when tired they push on and make progress. No wonder the last day is a mixture of panic, elation and sadness. Most people spend the morning hollowing-out the portraits in readiness for firing. Energy levels are kept high with a home-cooked tahini, date and almond cake. They all get their hollowing-out finished in time for at least half an hour lunch break – all except for me. So I set them up for the afternoon with Dave and sneak out to the Loving Hut cafe for scrambled tofu roll and hot chocolate – heaven.
On the last afternoon I tend to keep a lower profile, giving feedback only when asked. They beaver away. Falling in and out of love with their sculptures at regular intervals. By the time the clock reaches 5.15pm we are ready for the final ‘exhibition’ and final reflections. It is quite an emotional experience to have all the sculptures lined up with Dave at the centre.
We view them from the front, then from the side-profiles.
Each student in turn talks about their sculpture, focusing on the progress they have seen and what they want to be tackling in the next portrait they sculpt. Exhausted but happy. Talk of when the next courses are running, as they want to get straight back into it. Then packing up begins. Cars and vans arrive to spirit the portraits away. Hugs and promises to keep in touch.
Finally I am alone with my paraphernalia spread across the studios. An hour and a half later my car is loaded and the studio floor hoovered. That’s it until the summer schools at Phoenix Brighton, Meltdowns Studio (Ramsgate) and the Sussex Sculpture Studios. I will miss it – I love teaching. But it means there is more time to focus on the work for our group show and my peace garden commission.
It’s the last day. Two students are continuing to model Dave, while the other five are going to hollow-out the clay head so that it can be fired. Everyone has hollowed out at least one head before, if not many more. Normally you would leave the clay to become ‘leather-hard’. But as we need to do it on the fifth day of the course the clay will always be a little too soft. Experience shows that we will need the afternoon to do a bit of remodeling. We run through the principles of hollowing-out ie why we do it rather than just putting the portraits straight into a kiln. A successful firing of a sculpture is ultimately about having an even thickness of clay throughout the sculpture and carefully managing the drying process. A thick section of clay next to a thinner section of clay means that the thinner will dry more quickly and lead to cracking. It also helps if we avoid getting air bubbles in our sculpture as we put on clay – moisture trapped in air bubbles can lead to the sculpture exploding/shattering in the kiln. In order to get an even thickness we need to scoop out the ‘brains’ of the portrait. Just a warning – the following explanation may only make sense to those who have had a go at this process or are familiar with clay!
First, we cut off a ‘skull cap’ shape from the top/back of the head. We use a wire cutter (like cheese-wire) to do this. Before we lift the skull-cap off, it’s good to make some marks so you can line-up the skull-cap correctly at the end of the process. We lift off the cap and put it somewhere safe (and not in the sun as we don’t want it to be drying out). We then dig out the clay from inside this ‘skull cap’ and from inside the main head (see photo). We use ‘hollowing-out’ tools – these are basically hoops of stiff wire attached to handles. You need to take care to feel the thickness of the remaining clay as you scoop out. It’s all too easy to get over-excited and dig through the side of the neck! Mind you, you can always add some clay to the inside of the neck if you do. I am aim for around 3.5cm thickness. But it won’t be possible to get it that thickness everywhere (for example, the neck).
While we are doing this we leave the sculpture on the armature for as long as we can. It means it is nice and stable and we are avoiding ‘squidging’ the clay. Because the wooden bust-peg will start to get in the way, we need to get the portrait off the armature. We can then dig some more clay out from the top, before we then dig up into the neck from the bottom. It is at this stage that we also decide whether we want to chop off any extra clay that we have at the base of our portrait. If you do, then make a cut with a wire cutter at this stage.
Getting the head off the post is easier said than done. We place them on the floor and literally stand on the wooden base, standing over the sculpture. We have the nose facing away from us, and we clasp the portrait under the chin and at the back of the neck (or under the shoulders at the back) – then ease the sculpture straight up and off the armature. On day one we covered the wooden post with newspaper, so this helps it come off smoothly. At this point you need to have already laid everything out you need. A chair nearby, an old pillow, a bin bag for the clay bits you will be removing, and your hollowing out tools. It does help to have other people around as the clay sculpture is pretty heavy and hard to move once off the armature. Once you have it on your lap – sitting upright with the nose away from you – you can dig out some more clay, carefully. Widening the hole that runs through the neck is quite important. We’ll come back to that.
Once you have done all you need from the top, turn the sculpture over, on your lap, so it is resting on where the ‘skull-cap’ was removed. You can now hollow-out from the bottom. But careful – the sculpture needs to be able to stand while it is drying out and will be quite heavy, so don’t go mad. But if you dig out too much from the shoulders, you can always add clay back in. Or you can create a thick clay supporting wall under the shoulders (this last statement will probably make no sense at all unless you have tried this before!).
In order to replace the ‘skull-cap’ of clay on the top of the portrait, you need to have the sculpture standing upright. I prefer to dry my portraits out on a stand as it makes them more stable. This is particularly important if you need to transport the sculptures (now or later, like the students will) or the model’s pose/posture means that the weight of clay may pull the sculpture over. Dave’s head is held quite far forward in comparison to his shoulders, so not having their sculptures back on a stand will be problematic. Also, if you prefer not to have a flat bottom to your sculpture, it will not be free-standing so needs the support of a stand.
Having said all this, if you pop your sculpture back on the same armature as you sculpted it on, there are a couple of danger points to be aware of relating to how clay shrinks when drying. How to explain this? If the top of the wooden post is too close to the replaced clay skull cap, as the sculpture dries the whole weight of the portrait may literally end up hanging from the top of the armature post. Why? The wooden armature is going nowhere. So if the clay shrinks, and the top of the sculpture is very close to the top of the wooden post, then the shrinking will be noticeable at the base of the sculpture (ie the sculpture is having to shrink upwards). This is when the top of the head might pop off! Also, if you have not, or have not been able to, hollow-out the neck enough problems may occur. The shrinking of the clay as it dries means that the clay could shrink onto/against the wooden post. Again, the post is not going to give, the clay will. And it might crack. For this reason I normally have a range of armatures to hand that have shorter and thinner posts.
So – the sculpture is now placed on an appropriately sized armature. We now need to re-attach the skull-cap of clay. We need to have some ‘slip’ to hand (watery clay). You need an empty glass jar, to which you add small bits of clay and a little water. With a fork, or similar, you need to mix this until it is the “consistency of double-cream”, as my old tutor used to say. To prepare the surfaces you are joining, you need to scuff the clay up a little. Use a blunt knife or a modeling tool to make criss-cross small cuts in the clay. You then gently apply slip to both the parts you are joining – a paintbrush or a knife will do. Just don’t flatten all those nice divots you have made in the clay surface. You then replace the skull-cap (the right way round!) and gently push into place. You can mop up any excess slip that oozes out. The important thing is to then ‘unite’ the two sections. Get a small wooden modeling tool and push clay from above the join to below, all-round. You will therefore end up with scores across the join, up 1 to 2 centimetres. This is helping to make the join permanent, mixing the clay from above with that below. You can now re-model around the join and rectify anything else that has got a little damaged in the process (eg ears can easily get a little squashed). Today the students have the whole afternoon to carry on working with Dave.
Once you have completed the last tweaks you need to manage the drying process. In order to dry the sculpture safely, you need to dry it out over a period of up to eight weeks. Inevitably there will still be thicker and thinner sections of the clay, so the slower you dry it out the better, to avoid cracking. For the first week I would leave it wrapped in a black bin liner (away from sun and radiators). The second week I might loosen the bin liner so some air can get in. Week three I might remove the bin liner and cover the sculpture with lots of sheets from a ‘broadsheet’ newspaper. It looks a bit like you have made it a nest. A week or two later I might leave it with just 3 or 4 sheets of newspaper covering it. After that I would remove any covering. Then I might move it into a warmer room or nearer to a radiator. You will know it is dry when the whole sculpture has changed to a lighter colour. It is then ready to take to the kiln. I use the South Heighton pottery where Chris is incredibly experienced at slowly firing sculptures. It takes three days. One day the kiln is getting up to temperature, it is then firing for one day at the highest temperature, then takes a day to cool down. Then you are ready to colour or patinate the sculpture.
This is the last full day of sculpting as tomorrow is hollowing-out and tweaking only. My role today is therefore – one-by-one – to prompt, cajole and encourage. And feed them biscuits at appropriate times. We are all getting tired. Sculpting is demanding on the body and mind. Each student in turn has a small crisis, getting frustrated with their progress. Then I see them move on. By the end of the day they have fallen back in love with their sculptures, or at least made peace with them. You need to sculpt enough to have the confidence that if you just continue, it will come right, you will get the likeness.
Dave our model is a real star. It is not only because he has an interesting face and posture. Despite it being the end of day four he remains very professional and friendly. Willing to strip down to a singlet in order for us to see his neck muscles and his collar-bone, despite the cold. I struggle during the day to keep him warm. Especially after blowing the fuses in one side of the room and losing our best heater to the class next door. But all-in-all a good day. Hoovered up the worst of the clay on the floor before the Sunday session. I know we will all be struggling tomorrow against road closures and parking restrictions with the half-marathon. While normally I can run down the hill to the Phoenix Brighton, on Sunday I need to take more paraphernalia – such as old pillows, towels, hollowing-out tools, smaller armatures, more books, empty jam jars for making slip. And then to ship everything back to my already bursting-at-the-seams home. Can’t wait until I can move into my new studio.
The day starts with enforced ‘non-touching’ of their sculptures, again. They always moan at this. ‘But I neeeeedd to start sculpting’ they whine. This makes my resolve even stronger. In fact I decide to make this last thirty minutes. My mean streak emerges. But as soon as they start to focus the room quietens and their focus kicks in. They are now looking at their sculptures from the other side of the room. They are drawing. They are peering. They are writing notes on what they want to be tackling in the coming morning. Half of this time is spent looking at profiles – not just the side-profile and front-profile, but every other profile. I get them to stand by their sculptures while I turn Dave. Eight small turns make up the full rotation. Each turn means they also have to rotate their own sculpture and look at the profile presented. When you are starting to deal with the cheeks, the muzzle and how the eye socket cuts back at the sides of the face, these mid-profile views are essential.
Finally I allow them to touch their sculptures and get on with their list of things to tackle. Again, the sculptures are progressing rapidly yet surely. Structurally they are looking quite strong – you get a sense that there is a skull structure supporting the clay. As a reminder of the importance of the skull we do a ‘walk’ around the skull. Everyone stands in a circle with eyes closed as I get them to touch their own heads and feel for the different undulations of their skull, feel the roundness of their brow, the bony edges of the eyes sockets, feel the orbs of their eyeballs, and the cartilage of their noses and ears.
So – overall the sculptures are lookin’ good. Saturday’s session? We will be ensuring the necks look like they can support the average size head (around 4.5kg). And more focus on the location of features before moving on to the detail of features.
Day two started in the same way as the remaining three days will start. No one is allowed to touch their work for the first ten minutes. This is when your eyes are at their freshest. The previous night you may think you were quite clear what was right or wrong with your sculpture. It is only in the morning that you can spot perhaps that the overall shape of the head needs some further work. Or you spot that the neck hasn’t got that distinctive forward thrust of the model Dave. Drawing is allowed. Standing at the opposite end of the room is vital – this means positioning your sculpture the far-side of the model and taking the ‘long view’. If you line up the views so you can compare directly what you have sculpted and the actual model you sometimes get one of those eureka experiences. Another clincher can be drawing the profile of your sculpture, then superimposing a drawing directly from the model. Then comparing the two.
The rest of the morning was spent perfecting the side-profiles before starting to build-up in 3-dimensions. With a very productive first day, the students made rapid progress. We did some close looking at the front profile of Dave’s head – in essence, if you had to draw one continuous line how would you capture the head from the front (including the ears, skull, shoulders, shape of face). We also started looking at the many profiles between the face-on and side profiles – these can really help with the difficult aspects of portraiture (eg getting the shape of the brow, the eye socket, the cheek, the chin and so on). And lots of talking about the skull. This culminated in getting Dave to squat down on a child’s chair so we could all look down onto the the top of his skull. In turn, each student’s portrait was brought down to the same level. Interestingly there weren’t many nasty surprises – some great looking skulls. So at end of day two I am pretty impressed at their progress and levels of concentration and determination, even in the face of weariness. Day three about to commence.
Nothing quite like finishing a teaching day then having to come home and carry on working on sculptures until the wee hours. That was on the agenda yesterday. But I really enjoyed the teaching session – a great group of people that are also becoming obsessed by portrait sculpture. Dave is our model tasked with turning every five minutes. Day one was focused on getting back into working with clay, covering the armature and getting a feel for Dave’s head in particular his side profile. Getting a profile right, and which includes the back of the skull, means you are set up well for the rest of the five days. Fun to do a few quick exercises in hand-size lumps of clay – sculpting Dave with their non-dominant hand, sculpting his head without looking at their hands, and finally sculpting a small flat side-profile. Quite nice as no pressure, no expectations that anyone is going to be brilliant, so quite leveling. Some comparative looking helped to see Dave by comparing his profile against other students in the class. Always revealing. Then covering the armature with paper, then with clay, then setting up the composition and starting to build a life-size flat-profile in clay. I pushed them hard and fast but they rose to the challenge. Now for day two.
Is tutoring easy? Decide for yourself. About to start – 11.30 this morning – teaching portrait sculpture at the Phoenix Brighton. Will blog as the five days go by. People who have never taught seem to think it is easy and definitely not a physically demanding activity. Well if you are one of these people, come and load up my car for me next time. Suspension is low with 11 bags of 12.5kg clay, model’s adjustable chair, 8 wooden armatures (or ‘bust-pegs’), two bags of books, trolley of tools including calipers and spray bottles, and other paraphernalia needed for teaching such as coloured sticky dots and a skull. And not forgetting the supplies of tea, coffee, sugar, biccies and my cafetiere. You can’t be in a teaching environment without coffee. Now have to drive down there and unload. But at least I will have help. Hopefully the tables will have been removed from the studio and the newly made/bought sculpture stands will be in situ. Looking forward to this teaching – it’s a ‘continuing’ course. Means I know all of the students. No beginners. All bar one has been taught by me. And the Phoenix Brighton is a great creative environment to teach in. Time to jump into the car.